Lest We Forget

In 1999, the Romanian National Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism published a volume entitled “The Imprisoned Church: Romania, 1944-1989.” It is presented as a “dictionary” that details the persecution and suffering endured by clergy and other figures in the Orthodox, Catholic (Eastern and Roman) and Protestant Churches in Romania during the period of communist domination.

In his foreword to the volume, Dr. Radu Ciuceanu states: “In just one year, 1922, the tragic balance sheet of the Russian Orthodox Church indicated 2,691 priests, 1972 monks and 3,447 hermits had been assassinated. As the power was taken over by the Bolsheviks and terror was instated, the casualties multiplied.”1 The Dictionary goes on to give a thumbnail sketch of the persecution endured in Romania by more than 2500 “ecclesiastical personnel,” from the 1944 communist take-over until the Revolution of 1989. The following entries are typical.

  • Bogoevici, Pavel; Orthodox priest. Biography: Ministered at Bania; arrested in 1950; charge: sedition; sentenced to 12 years of correctional prison, detention places: Aiud, Turda, Gherla, The Canal; deceased.

  • Bucur, Gheorghe; Orthodox priest. Biog: The communists took him to the Arges river, beat him up, threw him into the water, pulled on his beard, then let him surface and catch his breath just to torture him some more; deceased.

  • Etdes, Stefan; Roman-Catholic priest. He served in Lespezi, Bacau County; arrested for building the Parish Church.

  • Paciu, Monica; Orthodox nun. Biog: Ministered at the Bistrita Monastery; beaten and raped by the Securitate [secret police] of Craiova; tried on 06.12.1949 by the Craiova Military Court.

  • Stancu, Tinca; Orthodox nun. Biog: Sentenced by the Ploiesti Court to 1 year and 4 months imprisonment; charge: unauthorized wearing of uniform [the monastic habit], after the monastery she had belonged to was dismantled.

  • Vasiliu, Mircea; Orthodox priest. Biog: Ministered at Roscani, Botosani county; detention place: Aiud; lung disease; abandoned without medical care, he died in that prison.

  • Similar entries exist for persons many of us know or have known over the years, persons whose spiritual, theological and pastoral witness has touched us deeply: Archimandrite Roman Braga, Fr Ilie Cleopa, Fr Dumitru Staniloae….

    Early in 2005, The Orthodox Word published a remarkable article by Nikolai Kolchurinsky, titled “Having Endured the Cross. The Martyric Death and Posthumous Miracles of Archpriest Constantine Podgorsky.”2 The author recounts the life and tragic death suffered by this new martyr of Russia, whose incorrupt relics have brought healing to multitudes of pilgrims. A priest in the village of Kirzhemany (Nizhni Novgorod), Father Constantine was serving the Divine Liturgy on November 7, 1918. Previously he had infuriated the revolutionary authorities by celebrating a pannikhida (memorial service) for the Tsar Nicholas and his family, as well as by devoting himself unsparingly to the pastoral needs of his flock. On this day, he provoked the authorities still further by gathering his people for a festal Liturgy, while the revolutionaries expected the villagers to assemble for a celebration of the first anniversary of the Bolshevik rise to power.

    Militants burst into the church during the following day’s service, seized Fr Constantine and, tearing off his vestments, threw him into the street. After humiliating and torturing him, “they dragged the now weakened priest by the hair to the high church porch and crucified him on the church doors…” [3]

    There have been other reports of priests being crucified in this way, by communists but also by representatives of non-Christian religions. Today, as we are all painfully aware, Christians are subjected to persecution, and at times execution, in numerous countries throughout the world. It’s hackneyed but probably accurate to say that things will get worse before they get better. This is true in the United States, by the way, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Sudan or North Korea. When I was in seminary, back in the early 1960s, the society in general looked up to pastoral ministry as a “noble profession,” one that attracted bright, committed young people to a life of service and witness, coupled, for those who cared, with a certain degree of social status. Conditions nowadays have certainly not reverted to what they were under Stalin or Ceaucescu. But to commit oneself to seminary study and the pastoral ministry today requires far more courage, determination, and perhaps even faith, than it did in my day. And again, not only in the mission field and lands of Islamic fundamentalism, but here at home.

    “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” Tertullian said. This is a truth we should neither forget nor minimize. The Epistle to the Hebrews closes with a recital of the sufferings borne by faithful Israelites in the period before Christ’s coming. Since that time, countless martyrs and “confessors” have shared directly, personally in the sufferings of Christ. The cross they have endured is none other than the cross of Christ. And their cross, like His, is borne not so much for themselves as for us.

    Their blood, mingled with the blood of Christ, nourishes the Church throughout the ages. For us, that commingled blood both assures us of what has been and presages what might lie ahead. Most of us will never go through the dread and suffering of martyrdom, but some will. And that fact alone tells us that in our prayer and our ecclesial consciousness, we must never forget the ultimate price paid by our Lord and by so many others in His name.

    [1] NIST, publication of the Romanian Academy, Bucharest 1999.

    [2] Vol. 41/1, no. 240 (Jan-Feb, 2005) 33-41.

    [1] P. 37.